Many difficult and complicated problems require a combination of the skills of management and the insights of engineering. Yet often, the difficulty managers and engineers have in understanding each other's view of the world thwarts the melding of their skills to truly solve a problem. In isolation, a manager can feel rewarded watching the organisation he created to ``work the problem'' grow larger and more important. Rewardingly occupied too, is the engineer who finds ``fix'' after ``fix,'' each revealing another aspect of the problem that requires yet another fix. Neither realises, in their absorption in doing what they love, that the problem is still there and continues to cause difficulties.
The development of the U.S. telephone network in the twentieth century provides an excellent example of how management and engineering can, together, solve problems. In the year 1900 there were about a million telephones in the country. By 1985 more than 135 million were installed. Building a system to connect every residence and business across a continent, providing service so reliable it becomes taken for granted, is one of the most outstanding management achievements of all time. Yet it never could have happened without continuing engineering developments to surmount obstacles which otherwise would have curtailed its growth: problems no amount of management, however competent, could have ameliorated alone.
Consider: in 1902 every thousand telephones required 22 operators. The Bell System employed 30,000 operators then, making connections among the 1.3 million telephones that existed. Had this ratio remained constant, the dream of a telephone in every house, on every desk in every business, would have remained only a dream for it would have required, by 1985, three million operators plugging and unplugging cables just to keep the phones working. About 3% of the entire labour force would be telephone operators. Even if that many could somehow be hired and trained, the salary costs would price phone service out of reach of most people.
No amount of management could overcome this limitation. But a series of incremental engineering fixes, starting with automated switchboards for human operators, then direct dial telephones, and finally direct worldwide dialing reduced the demand for operators to a level where universal telephone service became a reality. The managers wisely realised they needed an engineering fix, funded the search for one, and when it was found, managed the transition to the new system and its ongoing operation thereafter.
The engineers, likewise, realised that while they could fix a large part of the problem, they couldn't do it all. Had they sought to eliminate operators entirely, they would never have found a workable system. Instead, they automated what they could and relied on a well-managed organisation of human beings to handle the balance. Indeed, the number of operators employed by the Bell System has grown steadily over the years, reaching 160,000 by 1970. But the engineering fixes had, through time, reduced the requirement from 22 operators per thousand phones to about 1.7.
By John Walker